Benicia residents may have noticed carports around town topped with solar panels in recent months. These are part of a citywide energy conservation project. According to the city of Benicia website, solar panels at 10 sites will generate about 40% of the energy used in city operations. Sites include carports at the pool, City Hall, the community center, the corporation yard, and the roof of the fire station, as well on the ground at the water treatment plant and three water-pumping stations. Funding for the project comes from PG&E rebates and a $13 million bond issue. If you’d like to see live data from the solar sites, click here. You’ll find out exactly how much energy is being generated overall, the breakdown by site and date and how much carbon and gasoline have been saved. You can also checkout a fun slideshow about how solar works.

There are a growing number of technologies that harness the sun’s energy, which can be categorized as active and passive. While passive technologies focus on things like space design, building orientation and selection of favorable building materials, active solar includes the use of photovoltaic panels, which produce electricity, and solar thermal collectors, which gather and convert energy to heat water.

Benicia’s first solar project dates back to the early 1980’s, when Southampton’s Solar Village was conceived in response to the 70’s energy crisis. 258 single-family homes were built using a combination of active and passive technology. Homes equipped with solar panels enjoy lower electricity bills and sell back extra electricity to the city.

For single families, the obvious pros of solar include much lower bills and zero emissions. Payback time depends on the type of system and location. Benicia resident Marilyn Bardet had solar panels installed on her home in 2004 and loves her system. “I’ve had no problems and the panels are still producing at their original rate. I pay about $4.50 a month for electricity. Frankly, I think it’s a worthwhile investment. It costs less than a car, and for my house, it made the most sense.” It’s also completely renewable—Benicia’s solar monitoring website estimates that enough solar energy reaches the earth’s surface each minute to match the world’s energy demands for a whole year.

However, many people find the upfront cost, as well as potential repairs, prohibitive. Solar panels also only work with full exposure to sun, which means only certain sites are eligible and a backup power source necessary. According to Mike Steinmann, a sustainable engineer and long time Benicia resident, although some government rebates for solar have dried up due to funding, the efficiency of the technology is also continuously increasing. Individuals have the choice to purchase a system up front or contract with a third party purchase agreement, so the consumer buys the services produced by the system, rather than the system itself.

Mayor Patterson sees numerous benefits to the city’s solar investment. “By investing in solar, Benicia can reduce air pollution, fight climate change and create jobs.  Some people have said that the investment is strictly a good business decision because the potential energy savings over the years.  Investing in solar and clean tech is more than just good business; it sends a message to entrepreneurs that Benicia welcomes innovation.  Early adoption of solar for the city sends a message that we care about the environment, our economy, and we have the willpower to make a difference for future generations.”

State support for solar technology (both business and residential) has been high since Governor Swartzenegger’s “million solar roofs” vision, which precipitated the California Solar Initiative. This ten-year project was launched in 2007 and consists of various incentives provided by the state’s three power utilities. According to’s 2013 assessment of the program, 66% of the installation goal has been reached, with an additional 19% reserved in pending projects.

For up-to-date information on current rebates, click here.